The literal translation of ‘Fair Isle’ is ‘island of tranquillity’ from the Norse form Friðarey, meaning ‘calm’ or ‘tranquil’. Considering its remote locale (the northern most inhabited island in the UK), and its population density of just nine people per square kilometre, making a total population just shy of 70 in permanent residence on the island, Fair Isle certainly lives up to its name. A plentiful supply of wool from Fair Isle’s resident sheep ensures that knitting is a usable skill. Sadly, it’s a declining local craft. Yet demand for this very specific style of knitwear remains high.
In recent years, the term ‘fair isle knit’ has become popular – used generically to describe the stranded knitting technique, featuring bands of horizontal colours in geometric patterns. Traditionally, the style features limited, muted colours used with only two variations per row. Perhaps confusingly, it’s often assumed to be Nordic or Icelandic (aided – yet not to be confused by - Sarah Lund wearing her now infamous star knit jumper from the Danish show, The Killing). It does in fact originate from Fair Isle itself, which sits halfway between mainland Shetland and the Orkney Islands and is most widely known for both knitwear and a bird observatory.
Fair Isle resident and well-known knitwear designer Kathy Coull operates a small textile business creating hand and mill spun yarns where she offers handspinning workshops to visitors. A leading expert in authentic Fair Isle knitwear, Coull says people visit Shetland and Fair Isle “because of the heritage, hands-on opportunities with textiles, sustainability interest and unique harmony between fabric, environment and community”. For Coull, an authentic Fair Isle design must be made on the island using wool from pure-bred Shetland sheep raised in the unspoiled conditions of the isle. Other important factors include, “The traditional bands of patterns used on fair isle – each band is different but balanced over the work, and symmetrical in horizontal repeat motifs.” Hand-clipping or ‘rooing’ (plucking) the sheep’s fleece is a skill Coull invests time in to achieve a high-quality yarn for spinning. “This method avoids double-cuts, which happen more with electric shears and give lots of short fibres in the wool affecting the strength,” adds Coull. Colour, too, must be natural, using traditional dyes –“red from madder, blue from indigo and golden yellow from local plants”.
Authentic Fair Isle garments are distinctive and luxurious, qualities that a sensitive replica should seek to emulate. Hand-spun or not, modern or traditional, Fair Isle knits should be pure wool, chunky and slightly oversized. Perhaps most importantly, a Fair Isle knit should reflect on the wearer a good sense of humour.
Click here for our range of Fair Isle inspired sweaters and socks, including the sweater shown above.
Words by Andie Cusick